The Christian’s View of Life, Death, and Eternity
The second Epistle to the Corinthians is the most personal of all Paul’s epistles. In it he tells us more of his sufferings and his anxieties than in any other. In Chapter 1 he mentions his deliverance from ‘so great a death’, which is taken by Dr B. B. Warfield to refer to his being cast to the wild beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32). In Chapter 2 he reveals ‘his much affliction and anguish of heart’ over the state of the church at Corinth. In Chapter 4 he says: ‘we are pressed on every side, yet not straitened; perplexed, yet not unto despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; smitten down, yet not destroyed’ (vv. 8-9). In spite of all his trials he is far from being overcome. Indeed at the close of Chapter 4 he says his trials are only as a feather-weight: ‘our light affliction which is for the moment, works for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.’ He can describe them thus because he looks at them ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ — in the light of eternity.
A Building of God
In the first ten verses of 2 Corinthians 5 the apostle sets before us the Christian’s attitude to death and the resurrection. He begins with the note of certainty that marks Holy Scripture — a note that is often missing in contemporary theology. He says ‘we know.’ And this assurance is with regard to the unseen and eternal world. His body, he says, is as a frail collapsible tent, but when this is taken down, he will have a building, not of human construction but of God’s making, awaiting him. He does not at this point say when or how this will happen, but he uses the present tense ‘we have’ because it is an assured possession. Or, as Dr Vos put it, by faith he can project himself into the future and claim ‘this house’ as his own. He surveys the taking down of the frail tent (of his body) with calm equanimity for he is to have a better structure of God’s handiwork. This would be part of the ‘far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory’ which lay ahead.
This confidence marked Robert Cunningham who ministered faithfully at Holywood, Co. Down, N. Ireland, for some twenty years before being thrust out and deposed in 1636. When dying at Irvine in Scotland in 1637 he said: ‘I see Christ standing over death’s head, saying, “Deal warily with my servant; loose thou this pin, then that pin, for his tabernacle must be set up again”.’
The Believer’s Groanings
While the believer dwells in the frail tent, he groans (verses 2 and 4). The groanings arise in part from the imperfections and lack of attainment in our present bodily condition and because of the evils of our time. But they also arise from his earnest desire and longing to put on his house which is from heaven. The apostle mentions this groaning also in Romans 8: ‘we who have the first-fruits of the Spirit groan within ourselves, awaiting the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body’ (v. 23). Clearly he is here referring, not to the glory of which the believer shall be partaker at death, but to the resurrection, when he will be clothed upon and what is mortal will be swallowed up of life (2 Cor. 5:4).
The Maximum of Blessedness
Let me repeat, the apostle is not thinking of the glory of the disembodied spirits of the just. There is something still more to be desired than what he refers to as the state of ‘nakedness’. It is true that the spirits of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and behold the face of God in the highest heaven in light and glory, and this will be ‘great gain’ and ‘very far better’ (Phil. 1:21-23), but it is not the maximum of blessedness. This will be their portion only at the coming of the Lord when the dead in Christ will rise in their glorious, incorruptible bodies and the living saints will be ‘clothed upon’ with their house which is from heaven.
It is true indeed that the lot of the disembodied spirits of the just and the lot of the resurrected saints will have something in common, namely, the bliss of being ‘with Christ.’ And the bliss of being ‘with him’ is greatly to be desired even at the expense of the unnatural mutilation which takes place at death. But when Christ comes in his glory the bodies of the saints will share in the bliss of their spirits and the whole body of Christ will be complete and will enjoy the maximum of bliss in the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.
There are in this passage (2 Cor. 5:1-10) four present tenses which bring out strikingly the attitude which should mark believers in this present time:
(i) Walking by faith: ‘We walk by faith’ (verse 7). Step by step we must journey on, and follow in the steps of the heroes in Hebrews 11 who endured and conquered by faith. The apostle himself said: ‘The life which I now live in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). On this Bishop Lightfoot comments: This is ‘the atmosphere as it were which he breathes in this his new spiritual life.’ It should be the pervading atmosphere of our lives. So we too shall endure and overcome.
(ii) Looking earnestly forward: John Trapp said: ‘This is pinned as a badge to the sleeve of every true believer — that he looks for and longs for Christ’s coming to judgement.’ The New Testament is an intensely forward-looking book, and believers are taught to look forward with earnest desire (verse 2). This keen desire burns strongly, for it is wrought in us by God; it is produced by the Spirit in our hearts and is our guarantee as it were of the full inheritance. Samuel Rutherford spoke of himself as ‘a man often borne down and hungry and waiting for the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ May this ‘earnest desire’ (verse 2) mark our lives!
(iii) Showing courage: ‘We are always confident’ (verses 6 and 8). ‘Always of good courage’ is a better rendering. Why of good courage? Because, says Paul, ‘we wish rather to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord.’ We are not like that great English lady who is reputed to have said on her death-bed, ‘All my possessions for a moment of time.’ No, we prefer to be at home with Christ. When Charles Hodge was dying, his widowed daughter was weeping by his bed-side. He urged: ‘Why should you grieve, daughter? To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord; to be present with the Lord is to see the Lord; to see the Lord is to be like him.’ It was this that made the martyrs so brave. But they also looked away beyond death to a yet more glorious day. When Paul was facing martyrdom he said: ‘Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day.’ He was looking for the day of days, the crowning day.
(iv) Cherishing ambition: Our Authorised Version reads ‘we labour that we may be accepted of him’, but a better rendering is ‘we make it our aim [or, our ambition] to be well-pleasing to him.’ And he adds: ‘for we must all appear before the judgement-seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things he has done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.’ This is a noble ambition — to be well-pleasing to the Lord. God forbid that we should ‘suffer loss’ on that day! God forbid that our work should be of combustible material such as wood, hay, straw, but rather may it be of gold, silver and precious stones which will abide the testing fires!
A few weeks after Dr Andrew Bonar celebrated his ministerial jubilee he said: ‘I have been thinking tonight that perhaps my next great undertaking may be this — appearing at the judgement-seat of Christ.’ May we keep that ‘great undertaking’ in view!
This article was first published in the June 1975 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.
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